WASHINGTON - US Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Tuesday that waterboarding is not currently authorized for CIA interrogations, but said he would not answer questions from Congress on the technique's legality in general.
Mukasey, who is to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, said that since becoming attorney general on November 9 he had been briefed on Central Intelligence Agency methods in its current interrogation program.
"A limited set of methods is currently authorized for use in that program. I have been authorized to disclose publicly that waterboarding is not among those methods," Mukasey wrote in a letter to committee head Senator Patrick Leahy.
"Accordingly, waterboarding is not, and may not be used in the current program," he said.
But Mukasey, under pressure since his nomination last year to declare waterboarding, which simulates drowning, as illegal torture in all cases, would not say whether it has been used in the past.
He also suggested there could be circumstances where it might be allowable, and added that he would not answer questions from the committee about technique's legality under US law in the absence of any specific current needs and conditions to discuss it.
"I do not believe that it is advisable to address difficult legal questions, about which reasonable minds can and do differ, in the absence of concrete facts and circumstances," he said.
"With respect, I believe it is not an easy question. There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding.
"Other circumstances would present a far closer question."
Mukasey also said flatly declaring waterboarding illegal in all circumstances would inform US enemies of "the limits and contours of generally worded laws that define the limits of a highly classified interrogation program."
In an emailed response late Tuesday, Leahy said Mukasey's letter echoes the President George W. Bush administration's stance on waterboarding's legality.
"Attorney General Mukasey knows that this will not end the matter and expects to be asked serious questions at the hearing tomorrow," Leahy said.
In a National Journal interview published Monday, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who was the US spy chief from 2005 to 2007, admitted that the United States has used waterboarding in interrogations, but he said it no longer employs the method.
"We've taken steps to address the issue of interrogations, for instance, and waterboarding has not been used in years," Negroponte told the magazine.
"It wasn't used when I was director of national intelligence, not even for a few years before that."
The CIA has been embroiled in a controversy over the destruction of videotapes that allegedly showed the use of waterboarding on two Al-Qaeda suspects in the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Mukasey this month announced a criminal investigation into the matter after the CIA chief in December admitted that the agency had destroyed the tapes.
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